Exclusive: Leadsom pledges best Brexit deal for farmers

In her first major interview with Farmers Weekly since becoming Defra secretary, Andrea Leadsom insists she is absolutely determined to get the best Brexit trade deal for UK farmers – and will be “banging the drum” for British agriculture at this week’s SIAL food fair in Paris.

Listen to the audio interview, you can also read the full transcript below.

See also: Leadsom prepares to take food exports ‘to next level’

How important are exports to British food and farming?

They are absolutely vital. We are really trying to promote Great British food in every way we can. We launched our Great British Food unit in January this year and 2016 is the year of Great British Food as part of a five-year push to really start exporting much more than we have done to date.

It is an absolutely top priority for my department.

You are looking at new markets – as well as existing markets. One of our biggest existing markets is, of course, the European Union. How important is it that we continue to have free and unfettered access to the EU single market?

As the prime minister has made absolutely clear, we will do everything possible to get the best deal for the United Kingdom.

We definitely want to continue maximising trade possibilities with our European neighbours and we are doing a huge amount of work within Defra to ensure we are banging the drum at every opportunity in the Brexit negotiations for our food and farming sectors.

But there are also enormous opportunities around the world.

Last year we exported £18bn of food and drink. This year we are up to £10bn already, which is an increase on last year. But there is an exponential increase we could achieve by really looking across the world for opportunities.

Some of the sheep farmers I talk to are concerned they might lose access to the EU single market – or that there might be tariffs imposed on lamb exports to countries such as France. How do you respond to that?

Well, what I can say is – as I have just said – we are working really hard to make sure we get the best possible deal for our UK farmers and exporters. Whether it is lamb, whether it is dairy, whether it is beef – we are absolutely understanding, assessing the right deal for the UK.

We are very aware of both the potential for tariff and non-tariff barriers – and our absolute desire is to minimise those to the maximum extent possible.

Is access to the single market more important that controlling immigration?

The prime minister has been very clear – the people voted in June to leave the European Union and that is what we will be doing. As part of that, it is very clear that people in the United Kingdom want the UK parliament to be in charge of immigration numbers and that is what we will deliver.

But equally, being able to trade with our European partners is absolutely vital to our interests.

Some of the things you have spoken about have been about exporting naan bread to India. That seems to be a niche product. Should farmers and food producers be looking at producing niche goods? Or should they be going for volume?

Everything. In fact, earlier I was talking to colleagues from the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board about the huge potential for selling pork to China, and cereals.

There are some enormous commodity opportunities for exporting, as well as the more fun, perhaps a bit more chatty subjects such as those smaller products that we talk about from time to time.

But there is also the really important sector around some of our iconic brands – Cornish pasties, for example. Some of the really famous UK names. And of course Scotch whisky, which is an enormous export, but also an iconic brand.

So I think it is everything – all of the above.

You are going to the SIAL food fair in Paris, and also to China. What are you hoping to achieve there?

At SIAL in Paris, I hope to be launching our export action plan. That will set out very clearly what our aims are for our next period of time, and our ambition.

In China, it is very much to try to open up markets – specific areas for the UK – and to represent the opportunity. British food has some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world, the highest standards of food safety and traceability.

So I really want to promote that Great British brand, so I want to make sure we make the most of the opportunities for all – right across our product ranges.

We do have high animal welfare standards – and one of the concerns of farmers is that after we leave the EU, products shouldn’t be allowed into the UK if they are produced to standards that would be illegal here.

But WTO rules mean we can’t differentiate against food imports according to how they were produced. Is that your understanding too?

We are absolutely looking at every aspect of trading arrangements once we leave the EU. And we have a very clear commitment to animal welfare standards in this country – and we will be making sure that we don’t drop our standards.

We think food transparency and food safety are absolutely vitally important.

One final question: In terms of agricultural policy and farm support, how much of it is within your power to decide and how much of it is being run by the Treasury. Is it in the gift of the Treasury to decide how much money will go to agriculture post-Brexit?

When I first came into the job, one of the first things I did was agree with the Treasury that we would continue agricultural support payments and agri-environment schemes until 2020 – so after leaving the EU.

Of course, what we now have is this superb opportunity to look at policies for support for our food and farming – and for our environmental goals – which suit the United Kingdom, rather than the kind of one-size-fits-all for 28 EU member states.

So we have this enormous opportunity – and we will be working very closely across Whitehall. I sit on the Cabinet committee that is looking at leaving the EU, so there is wide consultation right across Whitehall on what is the right way forward.

But there is going to be a big consultation with farming groups, environmental groups – all stakeholders – before we make any decisions.